In­side the pri­vate world of Mag­gie Tab­berer


She was the stun­ning, leggy brunette who be­came pho­tog­ra­pher Hel­mut New­ton’s muse (then his lover) and cap­ti­vated Aus­tralia as a TV star and fash­ion trail­blazer. In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view, Mag­gie Tab­berer talks to Juliet Rieden about the men in her life, her cher­ished daugh­ters, the grief of los­ing her son, and cel­e­bra­tions for her 80th.

Sun is stream­ing through the white plan­ta­tion lou­vres and danc­ing across the chis­elled cheek­bones and oceanic eyes of one of Aus­tralia’s most fa­mous and beau­ti­ful faces. The cam­era shut­ter chat­ters ex­cit­edly; a wry smile, a head tilt, a search­ing gaze and there it is, frame af­ter frame, a per­fect take. The icon in front of the lens is Mag­gie Tab­berer and, yes, even in her 80th year, as our photo shoot at­tests, she’s still got it.

Ear­lier, in front of the bath­room mir­ror, Mag­gie ex­e­cuted the per­fect head wrap – a mag­i­cal ma­noeu­vre cul­mi­nat­ing in what has be­come her trade­mark jaun­tily an­gled tur­ban.

“I’ve got no hair to speak of these days, dar­ling, so I have draw­ers full of these things,” she says, with a throaty laugh.

The style icon and former model is still as pas­sion­ate about fash­ion as she is about look­ing her best, which cur­rently is ame­lio­rated by a fridge full of Lite n’ Easy weight-man­age­ment meals. “I re­ally am do­ing it,” she says, laugh­ing. “I feel fat and I am round here,” Mag­gie tells me, run­ning her hands around her mid­dle. “It does still mat­ter. Of course, it does. I want to re­duce some. I don’t feel good.”

Mag­gie may have re­tired, but daugh­ter Amanda says, “It’s em­bed­ded in her DNA to strive to look good. She’s got a will to make her­self bet­ter, which a lot of peo­ple at 80 couldn’t care less about.”

Mag­gie has al­ways fought what she calls “the bat­tle of the bulge”. It was the rea­son she quit main­stream mod­el­ling. Yet with­out it, she would not have di­ver­si­fied into TV, be­come Fash­ion Ed­i­tor of The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly – a po­si­tion she held for 15 years, work­ing un­der seven dif­fer­ent ed­i­tors – and cre­ated her own la­bel, Mag­gie T, cor­ner­ing the mar­ket for women sized 12 to 24.

“I think we can be very proud of the way that she helped women in Aus­tralia,” her el­dest daugh­ter, Brooke, tells me over a cup of tea in her lo­cal café, just round the cor­ner from her mum’s home. “She was pretty out there. They saw the first signs of that on Beauty and the Beast, when she said, ‘Women, be proud of your­selves, don’t put your­self down be­cause you’re a big girl.’ She used to sign off her TV show, ‘And re­mem­ber, girls, what­ever you do, be good at it.’ She re­ally meant that. It was her mantra.”

Slip­ping ef­fort­lessly into her former roles as model and stylist, Mag­gie is in her el­e­ment and, watch­ing her work, it’s easy to see how her ea­ger pas­sion, sense of fun and in­nate style caught the eye of the most fa­mous and con­tro­ver­sial fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher work­ing in Aus­tralia in the 1950s.

The de­mand­ing and no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult Berlin-born Hel­mut New­ton was mar­ried to Aussie beauty June Brunell and work­ing in Mel­bourne’s fash­ion dis­trict when he and Mag­gie first met. Hel­mut was dif­fer­ent from other fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phers of the day. He rel­ished work­ing with big­ger, taller models with at­ti­tude and his pic­tures oozed a gritty, ur­ban el­e­gance.

In Mag­gie, Hel­mut met his muse and to­gether the pair cre­ated their own magic, turn­ing Mag­gie’s sub­ur­ban Ade­laide world up­side down and chang­ing her life for ever.

Be­fore Hel­mut, Mag­gie’s mod­el­ling was se­date and parochial. She was a very young mum of two and mod­el­ling was all about stretch­ing her wings and re­claim­ing her in­de­pen­dence from a con­trol­ling hus­band.

“I loved mod­el­ling,” says Mag­gie, “but I also en­joyed mak­ing my own money for re­ally the first time in my life.”

She had mar­ried Charles Tab­berer in 1953 when she was a gor­geously coltish 17 and he was 35. Charles wasn’t her first se­ri­ous boyfriend – that was an­other 35-year-old and the re­la­tion­ship ended un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously when

Mag­gie fell preg­nant at just 15. “That’s not a good mem­ory,” says Mag­gie, who con­fesses that as the youngest of five, she was a very re­bel­lious teenager.

“He should have known bet­ter. Sam was short and Ital­ian, and a builder. He had a huge flash car, and he used to rock up in that,” she re­calls. Mag­gie had an abor­tion un­be­knownst to her par­ents, lean­ing on her sis­ter, Nancy, for sup­port.

She vis­ited a lo­cal woman – “a very nor­mal-look­ing, neat lady in a black dress” she re­calls in her bi­og­ra­phy – and tells me she can still re­mem­ber ev­ery hor­ri­ble mo­ment of the pro­ce­dure. Later that night, back at her child­hood home in Ade­laide, Mag­gie col­lapsed and her se­cret was un­cov­ered. “My mother was won­der­ful. She was con­sol­ing, but af­ter­wards, ev­ery sen­tence fin­ished with, ‘And now I hope you’ve learned your les­son!’”

When Mag­gie met car dealer

Charles Tab­berer, her par­ents Molly and Al­fred Tri­gar must have wor­ried that his­tory might re­peat it­self. Yet the 18-year age dif­fer­ence be­tween the cou­ple didn’t bother Mag­gie. “I thought he was hand­some. He spoke beau­ti­fully and was a whizz bang on the ten­nis court and golf course,” she ex­plains. Charles took Mag­gie out and showed her off, and af­ter just six months he pro­posed.

Look­ing back, Mag­gie thinks she might have had “some sort of fa­ther com­plex” in her choice of men. Cer­tainly, she found boys of her own age to be “com­plete rat­bags”, she chuck­les. “They al­ways wanted to get into your pants and get you to sit in the back seat of the car, and all that busi­ness, which I hated.” Charles, on the other hand, was “dash­ing and suc­cess­ful, and I felt se­cure with him – it didn’t stay that way, though.”

Mag­gie’s own fa­ther, Arthur, “liked a drink or two or five or 10,” she says. “It didn’t please Mummy, of course, and the worst thing was that it absolutely de­stroyed his health. He smoked hand-rolled cig­a­rettes, no fil­ter, and even­tu­ally he got cancer in the throat.”

She says her par­ents were re­lieved when she told them that Charles wanted to marry her. “I think they thought, ‘Thank God, she’s off our hands. Some­one else can worry about her.’”

Aged 18, Mag­gie was preg­nant with her first daugh­ter, Brooke, and 14 months af­ter that, Amanda was born. She adored her girls, but sud­denly at the age of 21 Mag­gie was mar­ried with two ba­bies. “The preg­nan­cies were planned,” Mag­gie tells me. “I’ve al­ways thought, in my heart of hearts, Charles thought, ‘I’m not go­ing to let her slip away from me, so I’ll keep her bare­foot and preg­nant at home’… I was cer­tainly that and, yes, it tied me down.

“I was so young, I got rest­less and, fi­nally, af­ter sev­eral peo­ple had said to me, ‘You should be in mod­el­ling’, I started to lis­ten.”

Mag­gie joined a mod­el­ling school and, proving to be a nat­u­ral, was quickly snapped up for fash­ion pa­rades and ad­ver­tis­ing work for David Jones in Ade­laide. Soon, she was work­ing in Mel­bourne too, which is where she met Hel­mut New­ton.

With Hel­mut, ev­ery­thing was dif­fer­ent. Mag­gie was cre­at­ing art and it ig­nited a cre­ativ­ity she never knew she had. “I was like a big sponge at that time. I watched him and I knew what he liked, I knew how he wanted me to stand. I don’t know if it was telepa­thy or some in­tu­itive thing, but I would start to throw in my idea of what I should be do­ing and we de­vel­oped a sort of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Also, I was game,” Mag­gie re­calls.

“He had a thing about pho­tograph­ing you in all those lit­tle al­ley­ways in Mel­bourne that I now re­alise looked

Mag­gie Tab­berer, with daugh­ter Amanda, wel­comed us into her Syd­ney home (which is just as stylish as you’d ex­pect).

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